Reading for the Myth


Reading for the Myth

Laurence Coupe

The English Review, 4, 4 (April 1994), pp. 6-9

What do we understand by ‘myth’? Laurence Coupe answers by showing how mythic patterns lie behind works as different as T.S. Eliot’s poem, The Waste Land, and Coppola’s film, Apocalypse Now.

Note: This is a slightly revised version.



Being told you may have to find out about ancient mythology while working on Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, say, or Milton’s Lycidas, may be initially annoying, but it would be misguided to deny the relevance of the exercise. Indeed, reading for the myth — looking at particular works for their underlying, primitive pattern — need not be considered a painful duty at all. If you think about it, it is something we do automatically, even when we are not consciously studying for literary examinations. We ‘read’ film and popular music whenever we stop to think about their hidden design.

Myth and ritual

Let us first recognise that it will not be much use if we start out, as many people do, by using the word ‘myth’ to mean ‘false account of things’, as in ‘It’s a myth that we are live in a free society.’ But rather than run through the many, various definitions which are rather more helpful than that, we will base our discussion on one massively influential theory concerning the very origin of myth, that of Sir James Frazer.

Frazer was the author of the twelve volumes of interpretation known collectively as The Golden Bough (completed 1915). Here, he argued that we could not understand myth separately from ritual. His focus was on that early form of myth which concerned fertility, and would have been the story accompanying some form of vegetation ceremony, or nature cult. The tale it told would have been that of ‘the dying and reviving god’. Why did the god have to die? Precisely because his business was fertility. The community depended on him (or so it believed) for its own survival. If the god did not die he could not be reborn, and so there would be no new crops.

Near a sacred lake in ancient Italy, in the days of imperial Rome, there stood a sacred grove, at the centre of which was a sacred oak. The place was called Nemi, and it was there, according to Frazer, that there persisted a custom which had its roots in the primitive magic of the Neolithic period, or New Stone Age. The ‘King of the Wood’ was annually replaced by ritual slaughter. The contender for the title had to pluck ‘the golden bough’, or mistletoe, from the oak in order to prove he had taken over the power of the god. Only through this violent succession could the fertility of the land be ensured. There was a magical connection between the drama of the dying and reviving god on the one hand, and the seasonal cycle on the other. The king is dead: long live the king.

If Frazer’s account of the ritual origin of myth was confined to the original ceremony, his approach inspired others to trace its influence. As the title of Jessie L. Weston’s book, From Ritual to Romance (1920), suggests, it was possible to discover the outline of the primitive drama of the slain god in later literary forms. In particular she was interested in the medieval story of the search for the Holy Grail, the cup containing the blood of the crucified Christ. She was sure the legend had its basis in the nature cults documented in The Golden Bough.

Essentially she argued that, just as there was no question that the existing god of the year had to be replaced by a stronger successor (in order that autumn and winter should lead to spring and summer), so the questing knight had to prove himself via a definite series of tasks. He had to undergo terrible ordeals, such as that of the Perilous Chapel. He had to find the Grail Castle. He had to ask the ritual question of the chalice: ‘Whom does it serve?’ He had to understand the answer: that the wounded Fisher King and the Waste Land were one. Only then would the healing powers of the Grail be effective: the waters freed, the monarch healed and fertility restored. Finally, with the Waste Land redeemed, its ruler would be able to die, and the quester would replace him as the new Fisher King. We have here glimpsed a mysterious initiation, founded in vegetation ceremony and embellished both by ‘folk’ imagination and Christian doctrine: a complex development of ‘ritual’ into ‘romance’.

The modern wilderness: The Waste Land

Frazer and Weston were important figures in what became known as ‘the myth-and-ritual’ school of interpretation. Myth derived from ritual, and literature from myth. This theory had a tremendous influence on the early 20th-century movement known as ‘modernism’, and modernist writers were particularly keen to draw on ancient myth to give added depth to their own work. The novelists D.H. Lawrence, James Joyce and Virginia Woolf were typical in their obsession with primitive patterns, as were the poets W. B. Yeats and Ezra Pound. But perhaps the most thorough exponent of what he himself called ‘the mythical method’ was T. S. Eliot, author of the long, multi-layered poem, The Waste Land (1922).

This work is a deliberate updating of two stories: that of the dying and reviving god, and that of the questing knight and the Fisher King. In our era, the poet seems to say, the god has died but the community is not ready for his revival. Spring brings only anxiety not rejoicing: ‘April is the cruellest month, breeding / Lilacs out of the dead land.’ The inhabitants of this land may well be asked: ‘What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow / Out of this stony rubbish?’ But the question cannot yet be answered, because these ‘crowds of people, walking round in a ring’ are oblivious to the need for true ceremony. Theirs is an empty ritual. A corpse is buried in a garden, suggesting a link with the ancient Egyptian cult of the god Osiris, but there is no mention of any rebirth. A sailor drowns, suggesting a link with the ancient Syrian/Greek god Adonis, but the waters of death are not transformed into the waters of life. Even when the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ are alluded to, the inhabitants of the modern metropolis, ‘Unreal city’, can only reflect: ‘He who is living is now dead / We who were living are now dying / With a little patience…’

Thus the nameless narrator of the poem, who serves as witness to its various episodes – we can hardly call him hero – is on a quest whose purpose seems to have been forgotten. This is a Waste Land which scarcely deserves to be redeemed, since the role of the Fisher King has been denied and degraded. Where once the fish symbolised fertility — abundant life brought out of the waters — it is now associated chiefly with desolation: ‘A rat crept softly through the vegetation / Dragging its slimy belly on the bank / While I was fishing in the dull canal / On a winter evening round behind the gashouse / Musing upon the king my brother’s wreck / And on the king my father’s death before him.’ (References here to Shakespeare’s The Tempest, a play categorised as a ‘romance’, concerning the triumph of love and life over hatred and death, are as ironic as those to the Grail legend itself.) The questing knight may have to undergo ordeals — there are allusions to the episode of the Perilous Chapel, where ‘bats with baby faces in the violet light / …crawled head downward down a blackened wall’ — but there is no sense of an initiation leading to the healing knowledge of the Grail.

Significantly, as the poem draws to its close, the narrator assumes the guise of the Fisher King, still waiting to be healed: ‘I sat upon the shore / Fishing, with the arid plain behind me….’ This moment is immediately followed by the final (unanswered) question: ‘Shall I at least set my lands in order?’ — words adapted from the Biblical prophet Isaiah’s warning to a sick ruler whose kingdom lies desolate.

Entering the ‘heart of darkness’

Eliot’s The Waste Land, with its comprehensive and ironic use of the insights of Frazer and Weston, is one of the highest achievements of modernist literature. Anyone who failed to read it for the myth would be missing most of its significance. But the power of the primitive pattern is not confined to ‘the great tradition’ of set books. Popular cinema and music often gain their effects in similar ways. Consider Francis Ford Coppola’s film Apocalypse Now (1979), with its intermittent use of a song by the 1960s band, The Doors.

Coppola was inspired initially by Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902). The film follows the novella in having the narrator (then Marlow, now Willard) take a terrifying river-journey (then through the Congo in the days of Empire, now through Vietnam to Cambodia during the American war against the Vietcong). He is trying to locate a mysterious figure (in both cases called Kurtz) whose mind has apparently been deranged by his years in the wilderness. Kurtz has become the object of native worship, and has encouraged the most barbaric practices.

The film goes beyond Conrad’s story in that Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) of the US Army has received instructions to ‘terminate with extreme prejudice’ — i.e. kill — Colonel Kurtz (Marion Brando) because his ‘methods are unsound’. In other words, his mission is the murder of a man who has set himself up as a god.

In case we fail to note the mythic theme, the film gives us all sorts of clues. When Willard finally encounters his victim, he finds him reading aloud from the poetry of T. S. Eliot. On his table lie copies of Frazer’s The Golden Bough and Weston’s From Ritual to Romance. On his way there, Willard has experienced all manner of ordeals, culminating in a nightmare imprisonment in a cage. Shortly after the meeting he will carry out the murder simultaneously with the natives’ ritual sacrifice of a buffalo. No sooner is the deed performed, and the body of the ‘god’ left bleeding, than Kurtz’s followers bow down and worship his killer, whom they assume to be his replacement.

The fact that Willard refuses to take over from Kurtz — that the dying god is not replaced by the reviving god, that the questing knight does not succeed the Fisher King — is consistent with the ironic use of myth in Eliot’s modernist poetry. Apocalypse Now is what you might call a ‘literary’ film. But the point is that its massive appeal — it is after all a ‘cult’ work among countless young adults — suggests a fundamental need for mythic meaning. Even those who do not spot the references — Frazer, Weston, Eliot — are aware that they are witnessing something at once very complex and very simple, sophisticated and primitive, modern and archaic.

This is borne out by the even greater appeal of the Doors’ music, shrewdly used by Coppola at key points in the film. The lengthy song, ‘The End’ (1966), which accompanies the opening and closing sequences, is as mythic in its own way as is Eliot’s poem. We enter ‘a Roman wilderness of pain’: that is, ‘a desperate land’ where ‘All the children are insane.’ Nor is that all. ‘Waiting for the summer rain’, the people are ‘desperately in need of some stranger’s hand’, some ritual guidance. The singer seems to know the answer, but he expresses it cryptically, so that only those aware of myth and myth theory can understand. His solution, then, is twofold: ‘Ride the king’s highway’ (follow the way of the god) and ‘Ride the snake’ to ‘the ancient lake’ of Nemi (trust to fertility, mystery). As if to confirm the implicit pattern (though Morrison is clearly thinking also of Freud and the Oedipus legend), the song includes an account of ritual murder: that of the father (dying god) by the son (reviving god). Once again, however, the meaning is ambiguous. Hope may be implied by the lines inviting us to ‘picture what will be, / So limitless and free…’. But both the first and the final declaration is stark and clear: ‘This is the end.’ Whether the end leads to a new beginning is left uncertain.

There is a lot more to say about how such archaic material actually functions in particular texts, and about how various critics disagree over its interpretation. But at least we can acknowledge here that recognising the fundamental narrative pattern — that is, reading for the myth — is  necessary for the full appreciation of the work being considered. It may be a film or a song which we happen to find intriguing; it may be a difficult, modernist poem which has been set for examination. In each case, the pleasure and satisfaction can only be increased.


Further reading:

Laurence Coupe, Myth, 2nd edition (Abingdon: Routledge, 2009)